‘The Undercover Man’ or — Spatial Compositions?

There’s a shot near the start of ‘The Undercover Man’ (1949) where four figures are talking in a hallway. It’s a simple dialogue scene yet all four people exist only in the lower third of the frame leaving a vast amount of empty, even dead, space above them. But why? It doesn’t seem to be about creating a specific atmosphere (apart from, maybe, the literal one above their heads) and it doesn’t seem to be about psychological space either (who’s psychology would we be in?).

I mention this upfront because it’s how director Joseph H. Lewis uses space that might be the most interesting aspect of ‘The Undercover Man’. Not that the film’s other elements — script, acting, pacing etc — aren’t without merit but it’s these visual hooks that’s the real pull here.

‘The Undercover Man’s title is something of a lie because nobody actually goes undercover in this movie at all. Instead, Glen Ford’s Frank Warren, an agent for the treasury department, is pretty openly on the hunt for evidence that can convict mob boss The Big Fellow, an obvious stand in for Al Capone, for tax evasion. A possible trail leads to the various account books used by the syndicate although the trick is in linking these ledgers, useless by themselves, to someone directly in the organisation.

Warren and his team encounter various obstacles such as murdered informants, terrified witnesses, bribed juries and corrupt officials. They also have to contend with the syndicate’s attorney, the slippery O’Rourke, who’s always ready to trip them up at any and every opportunity.

So it’s ‘The Untouchables’ (1987) meets ‘The T-Men’ (1947) as treasury agents fight the good fight against the might of organised crime through hard work, determination and checking lots and lots of paperwork. For the most part it works well, clipping along at a decent pace (with a few dead-patches) and driven by some strong acting, even if Ford’s Warren can be frustratingly humourless. It’s staunchly pro-government but also notice how members of the community all seem to use the “services” of the syndicate so it’s not entirely black and white either.

All this adds up to a decent, if unremarkable, thriller. Yet where ‘The Undercover Man’ really shines is in how Lewis presents all this visually: shaft’s of projector light slice through the almost solid black space of a cinema auditorium whilst illuminated smoke curls in the brilliance; cameras breathlessly careen after desperate men running through crowded streets; suspects line-up against geometric lines and grids that pull towards implied vanishing points. Again, it all seems to be about space. Cinematic space; architectural and/or abstract as opposed to Freudian.

An excellent illustration of this comes at the scene at the train station near the start. Glen Ford’s Warren is waiting for a certain man to appear. A man then appears, making his way out of the ‘men’s waiting room’. Yet we don’t get the sensation he’s exited from the bathroom, rather he seems to have stepped out of an abstract space existing outside of the film where he has literally been waiting and directly into the movie.

‘The Undercover Man’ is littered with moments like this; flourishes that make you sit up at their flair and style. They might not add thematic or psychological depth but they act brilliantly to punch up the visuals on screen.

‘The Undercover Man’ is a very good, if maybe not great, thriller where you can see the lineage of similar future films to come. It’s not as acidly cynical or brutal as other noirs and doesn’t quite have the juice to kick it into high gear but there’s still an awful lot of interesting stuff going on here with more than the occasional moment of real inspiration. If this is one of Joseph H. Lewis’ middling pictures then I’m now extremely keen to see one of his great ones.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.